April 7, 2004: President's Page


Shirley M. Tilghman

Government Service

In late February, within a span of about 40 hours, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger conducted candid and wide-ranging discussions with two groups of about 40-50 students; current Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered the keynote address at a conference commemorating the 100th birthday of George Kennan ’25 and accepted an award from students that recognized his “transformative” effect on their lives; and we presented the Woodrow Wilson Award to Joseph Nye ’58, dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

Two things that struck me during those events were the high degree of interest on the part of our students in thinking about ways that they, too, could live up to Princeton’s motto “in the nation’s service and the service of all nations” and the varied ways in which these four men had come to serve the federal government.

Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye both began their careers as academics. Kissinger has had a sequential career, serving with distinction on the Harvard faculty (and consulting with government agencies) for about 15 years, as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State for the next eight years, and then forming a consulting firm that has allowed him to continue to provide advice to government from the outside. Nye, meanwhile, has had an “in-and-out” career, serving on the Harvard faculty for 40 years, but taking leave on several occasions to hold senior positions at the Departments of State and Defense, the National Security Council and the National Intelligence Council.

Colin Powell came to government service via a distinguished career in the military, and George Kennan has been widely quoted as saying that he entered the foreign service not as a result of any carefully conceived life plan, but because of “the feeling that I did not know what else to do.” Once in the foreign service, of course, he applied his exceptional intellectual gifts in a way that made him one of the most influential foreign service officers of the 20th century.

I was reminded of these different career paths when I met recently with Paul Volcker ’49, who served in the U.S. government for almost 30 years. He has been chairing The National Commission on the Public Service (whose members include Bill Bradley ’65 and Frank Carlucci ’52, two Princetonians who have served their government with great distinction), which recently released a report that emphasizes both the difficulties and the importance of attracting excellent candidates for government positions. This has been a topic of considerable conversation on campus recently, in part because of a highly publicized lawsuit that has tried to raise questions about how well our Woodrow Wilson School graduate program is doing in preparing men and women for careers in the public service, including in particular careers in federal government service with an emphasis on international relations and affairs.

Princeton is doing exceedingly well, in my view, as illustrated by the fact that in this year’s national competition for selection as prestigious Presidential Management Fellows, the Wilson School graduate program was allowed to send 8 candidates for interviews, and all 8 were selected. (Another Princeton graduate student, in the History department, was also selected.) This brings to 212 the number of Wilson School graduate students selected for this program since its inception in 1978. Two graduate alumni from the School are regional finalists in this year’s White House Fellows selection process and five graduate students have applied for National Security Education Program Fellowships, the same number as were selected last year.

The Wilson School has always understood that its graduates would serve the government in many ways and that many, like Joe Nye, would spend time both in and out of government. One current graduate student who previously worked for a consulting firm that did extensive work with the National Institutes of Health observed that much of the work going on in Afghanistan and Iraq that once might have been carried out by federal agencies was now contracted out to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and forprofit corporations. He also pointed out that “almost two years after passing the famously competitive Foreign Service exams, I am still waiting for a call to training. If I don’t get that call before I graduate—and I am not holding my breath—I’ll have to look elsewhere.” He added that while he might not end up with a GS ranking, he has every intention, one way or another, of “working for the federal government.”

The majority of the School’s graduate students plan to specialize in international areas, but it is clear that we live in a time when many government departments that once dealt almost exclusively with domestic concerns are increasingly involved in international issues, and departments once thought of as exclusively focused on international issues are increasingly concerned with the domestic implications of their actions. The government, like universities, is increasingly interdisciplinary.

The School helps to prepare its students for government service not only through its curriculum, but through internship experiences (required of all Masters in Public Affairs students) and through a career office that has excellent relationships with the many government agencies and NGOs that employ the School’s graduates. Just as importantly, the uniquely generous fellowship support that the Robertson Foundation provides for most Wilson School graduate students allows them to graduate debt free, thereby permitting them to accept the relatively low-paying jobs offered by government and the non-profit sector.

Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 has observed a renewed patriotism in the wake of 9/11, accompanied by a recognition of the many ways in which the government needs strengthening to provide the services that only it can provide. At the same time, as a number of Wilson School alumni agreed at a recent day-long conference, tackling the world’s biggest problems, from terrorism to climate change, requires cooperation across the public, private and non-profit sectors. We want to do everything we can to prepare our students for the challenge of governing in the 21st century, recognizing that they will meet this challenge in many different ways and at varying times throughout their careers.



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